NZ Courts Disaster With GE Fodder Crops – a press release from GE Free NZ

Before I chime in, what are people’s thoughts about this?

(Friend-locked coz it’s rather related to my current work.)

39 thoughts on “”

  1. Initial thoughts – is this ryegrass intended to be perennial, or is it an annual crop like Italian ryegrass?

    If it’s intended to be perennial, in order to avoid potential contamination they’d have to make it terminal, which defeats the purpose of a perennial pasture grass. If it’s intended to function as a rotational annual fodder, then terminating it isn’t such a big deal, because it’d be ploughed in at the end of the season anyway.

    So if it’s perennial it would seem they are shooting themselves in the foot – they either have masses of potential lawsuits (and unknowns economically) from the risk of contamination and reduction of choice for farmers to go non-GE, or they have a completely useless product.

    If it’s a terminal annual feed grass, the argument would then come down to a cost/benefit analysis of its potential to be beneficial to reduction of greenhouse gases vs economic risk of the end user not buying GE fed product.

    If there are already non-GE things out there that have the same effect, the whole GE thing seems kind of pointless.

    So are there non-GE things out there that have the same effect?

    1. This is yer standard ryegrass, so perennial. There have been better energy content grasses on the market, for the last fifty years or so, but the gains from conventional breeding have been about 1% per year. This promises much faster improvements in the quality of the forage.

      1. When you say ‘gains’ do you mean in energy content and thus faster attainment of target weight in livestock, or in reduction of greenhouse gases, or in both?

        And what do those gains look like set beside an analysis (if they haven’t been done, they bloody well should have been, hop to it) of the risk around contamination or market reduction*?

        And, for that matter, has the potential for contamination with standard perennial ryegrass been tested?

        SO MANY QUESTIONS

        * I haven’t done ECON 101 yet so not sure this is the right terminology. I’m talking about the Japanese or whoever throwing up their hands in horror and going “Not buying your mutant cows!” etc.

        1. “gains” could be faster growth in cows, less GHG emissions, and less nitrogen run-off into the rivers. They could also be reduced bloat, drought resistant grass, and better shoulder season production.

          Analysis? That rather depends upon how you think markets will respond, how “contamination” is defined, and the rather awkward response of people to food scares, where buying patterns can change dramatically for pretty much no reason at all. Whatever economic analysis you do, it might be subject to so many caveats that people could be justified in ignoring it.

          1. Interpretation: It’s complicated.

            News flash, we already knew that. But when you’re talking about something as non-reversible as introducing a ‘new species’, these are the kind of questions that people will want answers to. I’m no scientist, I’m not even all that au fait with the GE debate, and if I’m already asking questions and they’re being answered with ‘could be, might be, and it’s complicated’, there are problems.

            More research needed is the conclusion I’m coming to…

            .. sorry.

          2. 😉

            j/k aside, your modelling could be beneficial to the research, and given the potential commercial viability issues I think they would be justified in paying you BUCKETS OF CASH to do it.

            Slogan for the campaign – “Bracing the Backbone of the Nation – Find Out Why”

          3. Re: 😉

            I actually wrote a (brief) section on using my research for evaluating the risks of GE contamination.

            A lot of original work on species spread is actually based on work done in population genetics. Back in 1929 or somewhere around there, some guy called Fisher modelled the rate that an advantageous allele spread through a population, so it’d kind of be fitting for it go full circle!

        2. I think “contamination” would be great for the local meat eaters, since the Japanese get some terribly nice NZ beef… at least the stuff I sampled in the most expensive meal I ever had was nice. It could well have been just be a price thing rather than a country thing though.

          1. This is true. I’ve been thinking about the potential for contamination for a whole 10 minutes now, so here’s my expert opinion.

            There are certain risks associated with the potential for GE grasses to breed with non-GE, and fears around those.

            1. Say this grass is safe and doesn’t cause any problems, breeds with the current grass and our pastures all become much more productive with less impact on the environment and no impact on the taste of my steak. If that were the case the only argument for contamination being a bad thing is related to ethics surrounding the perception of ‘playing god’. There are still quite a few folks out there who think of it this way – ie GE is an abomination. Those people would like to choose to buy products that are non-GE, but if contamination happens that choice to produce non-GE will have been lost to NZ farmers, and that market will be closed to us.

            2. Say it isn’t safe (bear with me, i have no reason to actually believe that but it’s an argument that’s being used), and breeds with current grasses. Do we spray our entire country with Roundup and start again? (see also: rabbits). Nuff said.

            3. Either way, if this stuff can crossbreed with non-GE ryegrass, it’s permanent, and that’s the thing I think is creating most of the assumption that it’s a bad thing. Irreversibility is a big deal when you aren’t sure of the outcome of an action.

            Therefore, being sure, if not of the outcome, at least of the retention of sufficient markets to support the industry should the outcome be that all the fundy Christians in America go vegan, seems like the sensible option.

            If that question can’t be answered, then more research is needed before releasing.

          2. I’m glad someone spotted that.

            I could say “adventitious presence”, which is the phrase used when the policy world is bending over backwards to avoid using loaded language, but everyone would go “what?”

            There’s a big gap about what contaminated means in practise. Some nations say that a shipment of corn with less than 5% coming from GM corn is GM-free. The EU says 1%. Some nations (and many NGOs) say any GM is too much. However, given that we’ve got frankly awesome equipment for detecting stray DNA, then you can PCR up the tiniest traces of parts per zillion of GM material.

            It’s like arguing that NZ isn’t nuclear free – I expect there’s at least one plutonium atom in each cup of tea you drink. Does that mean there’s a health risk? Does it fuck.

            So what GM-free means, and to who, is very much up for grabs.

          3. A thing

            ‘Adventitious’ sounds similar to ‘advantageous’. For me, without knowing the meaning of the word adventitious until just now, to hear that said out loud would put a positive slant on the presence.

            Words is weird.

  2. While I see their arguments, I still think GE research is important so it’s kind of short sighted of them to immediately jump to “OMG GE crops!”. One problem is that many funding schemes require some means to commercialisation†. So it’s quite possible that some of the people working on these projects are not particular fans of GE crops, but that the only way to get funding to do GE research is to frame it as a commercial project.

    GE crops still have to deal with the hybridisation issue. Which I think requires learning more about the genetics of speciation in order to disrupt their reproductive compatibility with other species. Monocultures are also a problem, but we’re doing that already with non-GE crops so it’s not exactly exclusive to GE projects.

    † He says, struggling to think of a way to frame general AI in a way other than saying it’ll fundamentally change everything.

    1. More questions then:
      1) Why is GE research important?
      2) Why should NZ research funds be spent on research that isn’t going to make money for NZ?
      3) There are no native ryegrass species, so if it hybridises, then it’ll do so with other imported ryegrasses. The canterbury seed industry has shown that it can keep non-GM ryegrass strains acceptability separate from each other, so if some of those strains are GM and some aren’t how does that change the matter?

      (Yes, each of these questions is a tarpit, but I’m keen to know what answers will come from people who are relatively fresh to this debate.)

      1. Small side note: I am enjoying the way your answers are tailored to address the issues raised in each comment, not only in content but in tone.

        (wonk)

        I might be doing some participant observation learning here.

      2. 1+2) It’s just my bias that scientific research is important and that there is currently too much focus on applied science. Particular if NZ wants to have more of information economy, then it should stop spending so much of it’s funding on agriculture research (which only happens because of the applied nature of it)… NB: I don’t actually know any of these assumptions as fact, it’s just my general impression which could be wildly wrong.

        Also, in applied science and my experience of funding schemes, there’s too much emphasis on publish x number of papers by this date (or some other quantifiable deliverable), instead of on doing things thoroughly and correctly… fortunately for my projects, despite the results being horribly delayed, they are thorough and original. Plus someone just commented that we should really be submitting our papers to Nature, so that’s kinda reassuring!

        3) Ah, fair enough then – I’m guessing they didn’t pick ryegrass for the project by coincidence.

  3. the issue with GE plants going into our food supply is that many people have visions of growing extra heads if they eat it.. part of this is media and also comics.. so there is fear of the unknown going on here…

    GE has only been a round for a little whiles, 10 years.. so there is still no way of knowing what its cost is going to be.. but then having said that weighting the benefits of what good it can do.. tricky place really, makes me wonder that proverb of just because we can do something don’t mean we should…

    and then… well NZ is an island country which is pretty easy to contain, and to be frank it would not be the first time NZ has been used as a ginnypig country to find out the results of something that could be potentially harmful…. errr yeah..

    GE anything still makes me shudder a tad… mostly because of the unknowness of it…

    *ponders stuffs*

    1. This is GE for animal feed, not human food. Would that distinction make you less concerned?

      The claimed benefits are two-fold, more production for the farmer, and a lower environmental impact per cow. The costs, well, there don’t appear to be human health costs that anyone’s found yet, other than to make beef and dairy relatively cheaper compared with other foods. And eating more beef and dairy might be more healthy or less healthy than those other foods, depending upon what diets people have.

      1. hmm.. but while it is being fed to animals, these GE feed animals become meat which humans eat.. thus the fear of growing an extra head, so while the GE crop is being feed to animals it is still ends up in the human food chain, so to speak.

        also its that there don’t appear to be human health costs, that denotes an unknown quanity, which to most peoples minds becomes growing extra heads… this i feel is due to the comic book heros, spiderman was bitten by a spider, the hulk had an overdose of raideation? various others had some odd sort of scientific acciendt, etc etc.. so in the minds of the average jo, this is what could potentally happen to people who eat food that has been produced through GE. adding to this the various erros that the govenment and scientists have made befor , such as smoking (doctors used to prescribe it) aspestos (was in every building) and a whole slew of food additives, (colour 123 comes to mind although it is still used in NZ) which are harmful in the long long term and a whole bunch of pharmaceuticals, which have killed, caused deformed babies, etc etc.. the list is kinda large.

        this has created a culture of mistrust and fear in the population, add to that a general culture of fear of change, then its even tricker

        so what distinction would make me less concerned.. umm.. more tricky cause well the mistakes that have already happened… maybe if there was more information about what GE is in terms that the average person could understand?

        gosh its like a rock and a hard place…

        1. also. because of the amounts of money that can be potentally made with GE is also a black mark in the minds of the average person, because of the above various errors which when looked into were about profit … so to speak..

  4. genes that have changed through selective breading is seen as a whole different ball game than that of specifically altering the plant or animal on a DNA level, and there is quite a differece in the mind of the public.. see various errors that goventments, scientests and money hungrey corporations have made, and it is little wonder that GE is getting the wrap that it is…

    and as for NZ being a guniea pig country.. read history of new zealand… mmk

  5. I thought this too, then I read some stuff about Monsanto and their games with GE corn in the US.

    Long story short, they started suing farmers out of business for having their strains in their fields… despite the fact that they’d spread naturally.

    Sure, that’s the fucked up nature of US law and their litigation society, but it’s still an issue.

  6. 1) I have to disagree here. Stone tools are great for killing that enemy tribe, especially if they’ve only got conveniently shaped rocks. The idea that “tech is cool, therefore we must use if it exists” kinda went off the map in the 1960s. I also think that medicine is a complete red herring here for the NZ debate. Golden rice might be a great way to deliver vitamin A at a very low cost, but any NZ use of GM is going to focus on forages (and maybe trees).

    As for organic machinery, I had one brief discussion about entirely synthetic biology which ended with me writing in my notebook “Holy! Living! Fuck!” and then changing the subject.

    2) Okay, but other countries are going to do research. The UK Royal Society is pushing pretty strongly for it (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/low/science/nature/8317511.stm). And yes, we’ll make money off the fundamental research, but the money-making part is not the same as the fundamental part, so why should the fundamental part be done here?

    3) Is the fear irrational? From the point of view of the hypothetic someone on the Clapham omnibus, they don’t know enough science to judge whether it is safe or not, they don’t have any way of assessing the quality of the scientists who are saying that this is safe, the government agencies say it is safe, but they said that about asbestos and smoking too. The risk is seen as uncertain and might be large. The benefit from GM is seen as going entirely to the farmer, not the consumer, therefore wouldn’t you agree that it is a rational decision not to take that risk on?

  7. I have opinions on the global social/economic impact of GE crops, and the removal of choice from farmers and consumers, that I’m happy to talk about in person. I’m not anti-science, but I think the power and distribution issues need a lot of consideration.

  8. I am not opposed to genetic engineering on principal–probably get my hippie status revoked for saying that. I even think it can do some pretty cool things. However, the IP-law issues around GE are important to policy. I don’t know what IP-law is like in NZ, but I know that the way it works in the US stinks. And generally speaking, the idea of corporations owning to rights to biological reproduction of plants and animals is pretty evil. Allowing corporations to own the rights to grow agricultural crops is, in my mind, a very bad idea.

    So, for instance, they make GE crops to be more resistant to Round-Up–so if Farmer A buys Round-Up Ready crops, Farmer A can continue to fight-off the weeds that are themselves gaining Round-Up resistance, leading to the vicious circle of those weeds becoming even more resistant. Then Farmer B, who doesn’t want to buy expensive patented GE crops is at an even further disadvantage as his fields are invaded by the now even-more-resistant weeds also.

    But then, just to top it all off, Farmer B gets sued for having crops that contain patented genes, because they cross-pollinated with the Round-Up Ready crops of his neighbor, Farmer A.

    I am nervous about the uncontrolled spread of GE crops. I’m actually less nervous about GE animals, as they seem to be easier to contain (and are used for more specialized purposes). Monoculture agriculture with whole agricultural industries of genetically identical plants is also a risk.

  9. Firstly, I don’t have much technical knowledge in this area. Also, I haven’t seen the original research proposal, only the paper attacking it, so I don’t know what they are proposing.

    I feel that GE organisms shouldn’t currently be released into an uncontained environment in NZ at the moment. This is based on:
    – Food that can be traced as containing GE material is unacceptable to a lot of our markets, especially the premium ones that we should be building.
    – We don’t have enough safety data to be confident that the effects of various GE organisms in the environment and the food chain will be benign.
    – As an island, NZ is vulnerable to problems from the introduction of novel species, as has been shown on numerous occasions in the past.
    – The commercial terms on which GE products are made available are often unacceptable.

    Those problems may go away with more research and better GE products. If such products can be demonstrated as benign to a high degree of confidence, our markets may move to accepting such product. (Equally, if climate change leads to massive food shortages, it’s likely that consumers will no longer care about GE).

    If the research in question doesn’t involve releases, then I have no problem with it, providing it can be shown to be objectively cost-effective. I don’t have an issue with the results not being used in NZ – a lot of research doesn’t end up benefiting the funding country, and if GE feed ends up reducing carbon emissions overseas, we still benefit.

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